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WHO WATCHES THE WATCHMEN? NOT ME: A NON-REVIEW OF WATCHMEN OR A POLITICAL SONG FOR DAMON LINDELOF TO SIN
By Christopher Sloce
Once upon a time, there was a comic called Watchmen. People act like it created the idea you could write superheroes as people, specifically bad ones. That’s revisionism, and lead to Watchmen getting credited with a tidal wave of dreck it didn’t deserve. What Watchmen was instead was the culmination of an attitude, an attempt to make comic books sit at the big table with other literature by using its natural advantages over other art forms.
Comics have an advantage, probably best worded by Harvey Pekar: “They’re words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures.” What Watchmen did was bring a level of sophistication to both the words and pictures that was the apex of both.
When you read a short story or a novel, in a very real way, you’re doomed to words alone. Take for instance a description of a room. If I describe a room to you, I’m taking away from what really matters: a character talking to another character about whatever; in short, story. I’m writing about something symbolically, I have to focus on it in the room. Say, a lamp that flickers constantly that the two characters ignore. Most people will ignore this but the astute reader will pick up on it, and it obviously becomes a symbol, because the narrator told you it was by mere mention. I would be willing to bet this very thing plagues most domestic realist writing: because we have to give students something to extrapolate in an attempt to hold immortality in our hands, we must be a little obvious sometimes.
The trade off is it slows down action. Elmore Leonard said something to the effect of he didn’t describe characters in this way and 9 times out of 10 it’s a writer showing off and probably getting himself half-mast at a description of whatever female he’s writing that looks like a younger version of his mom.
On the other hand, in the marriage of words and pictures, yes, a lamp flickering that the character ignores might be incredibly obvious. But the advantage is that the is that same flickering lamp has options for depiction that both gives the “narrator” more options to play with that adds another layer of symbolism and ultimately becomes more subtle and saves us all from the things we hated the most about high school English.
That’s what Watchmen was; the use of pictures and words their utmost sophistication to create something that absolutely could not be made in any another medium. It was helmed by Alan Moore, probably comic books’s greatest genius, and Dave Gibbons, who brought to life some of the most iconic character designs in funny books history, and John Higgins, who may be the comic’s secret weapon. Everyone is in muted secondary color. Comics simply don’t look like this. Genius all the way down.
Of course, genius doesn’t pay, getting paid does. Which brings us to some controversy about the whole thing. Who deserves the lion’s share of credit when we look at this singular work has to be the creative team. They deserve to rest on their laurels. After all, Laurence Sterne didn’t do much after Tristram Shandy, either. But that didn’t happen.
You see, when DC drew up the paperwork, they created a sort of devil’s bargain for Alan Moore. The deal was this: as long as we publish your story, it’s ours. The minute we stop, it reverts back to you. Say what you will about occultist anarchists, but they’re not the shrewdest businessmen and if they were, they wouldn’t give us Watchmen. Realizing in 1989 he had been hoodwinked and that DC was going to reign over Watchmen and other works immemorial, he refused to work with DC again. You can chalk this up to bad business but if one kid hits another kid in the head with a 2x4, do you blame the second one for having a head that’s too similar to the shape of a baseball?
Now, all of this is odious business if you care about art in anyway. The big money men ran away with Alan Moore’s little genius project that could. And believe me, it still makes me mad. But business is odious. At least creativity can choose what it smells like.
Unless, of course, you’re DC, you decide to publish what amounts extended universe Watchmen material. Because they owned the rights, they did what they wanted, and released a series called Before Watchmen. Eventually it was revealed that Dr. Manhattan, the removed and almost alien God figure who was the result of some atomic hijinks, actually messed with the DC universe’s storyline. And Alan Moore’s response to this, “Hey, what the fuck guys,” was the nerd cosmology going, “You mad, bro?”
Which brings us to Watchmen, now a TV series, and the latest front in making Alan Moore froth at the mouth, ran by Damon Lindelof.
I’ll be honest, I haven't watched it. I don’t plan on watching it. Just as I don’t plan on watching any number of things that shouldn’t exist: Young Sheldon, a magical girl anime about the Khmer Rouge using dance sequences to convince Cambodian city dwellers to go to the country to get gun butted to death, or my own birth. Even Damon Lindelof agrees that my position is a good one:
“I ask, “Is it even hypocrisy?” Then I say, as a fan, “Where would I come down on this thing if someone else was doing it? If I heard someone else was doing an HBO series called Watchmen that was not a strict adaptation of the book?” I felt that I’d be really angry about it and then I’d watch it. [Laughs.] I wonder how many of the angry people who don’t think it should exist will actually have the discipline to not even watch it. Those are the people that I really admire. The ones who are like, “This shouldn’t exist and I’m literally not watching it.” That’s an admirable position.”
Of course, Damon Lindelof will have to cry himself to buoyancy in his Scrooge McDuck vault, every crocodile tear slowly rusting his doubloons. The dirty secret of nerd culture, amongst others, is that nerds don’t care about creativity or wonder: like anyone who loses long enough they only care about winning. Well, getting paid by the big money men to film your action figures you repainted is a form of winning, except of course for discerning people, who have to watch your stop-motion 4-H projects, knowing the sordid history that lead to this moment. As is getting to live and relive your fantasias over and over in the form of the brand continuing. The big money men are nothing more than overgrown toddlers bashing together their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and their GI Joes and creating money every time that they do. Nerds posited themselves as resistance, until they could win one for themselves. Now they’re the handmaidens of big business. If The Simpsons had the same fall off it did however many years ago it did today, you could not get into Talmudic debates about what went wrong. You must stan for it.
Does Damon Lindelof care that what he did was a betrayal of his fellow writer? He seems to get it’s slightly hinky. But did Elia Kazan care when he named names in a dimly lit room, the lightbulb swinging back and forth too and fro while some James Ellroy fed smacked him with a phone book, and did it start after he got coronated at the Oscars with Nick Nolte and Ed Harris staring him down? Do scabs care when they cross the picket line? Judas cared, but the silver weighed down his robe pockets with enough heft for just enough time he didn’t have to worry.
It’s not even out of the question for comics creators to eventually get theirs, but it’s never until after the money is spent. I’m going to close with an anecdote about another thief, Bob Kane, who let Bill Finger, the real creator of Batman, die without immortality because he was busy sucking it all up for himself:
“Bob had gotten to the point where he never drew anything. Never drew anything on the Batman comics, anyway. [Sheldon] Moldoff was ghosting them all and when he didn’t, someone else did. The only thing I think Bob ever drew was when we’d be out somewhere, in a restaurant or someplace, and a pretty girl would come over to him and say, ‘Are you really the man who draws Batman?’ Then he could whip out a little sketch for her, a big sketch if she was wearing something low-cut and would bend over to watch him draw.
One day I’m over at his house to discuss this newspaper strip idea we had and he’s talking about who we might get to draw it. I was going to write it and we were going to get someone else to draw it. I’m not sure what Bob was going to do on it except sign his name. I said to him, 'Bob, isn’t it disappointing to you that you don’t draw any more? You were once such a great artist.’ He wasn’t but you had to talk to Bob that way.
He said, 'Oh, no. Let me show you something.’ He took me into a little room in his house. It was his studio. I didn’t even know he still had a studio. It was all set up with easels and things and there were paintings, paintings of clowns. You know the kind. Like the ones Red Skelton used to do. Just these insipid portraits of clowns, all signed very large, 'Bob Kane.’ He was so proud of them. He said, 'These are the paintings that are going to make me in the world of art. Batman was a big deal in one world and these paintings will soon be in every gallery in the world.’ He thought the Louvre was going to take down the Mona Lisa to put up his clown paintings. I didn’t have the heart to tell him.
So a few months later, I’m up at DC and I ran into Eddie Herron. Eddie was another writer up there and we got to talking and Bob’s name came up. Eddie said, 'Did you hear? Bob’s getting sued by one of his ghost artists.’
I said, 'How is that possible? Shelly Moldoff’s suing Bob? But they had a clear deal. Shelly knew he wasn’t going to get credit or anything…’
Eddie said, 'No, not Shelly.’ Bob was being sued by the person who’d painted the clowns for him…”
The only way for the Watchmen show to be honest is if it were clowns painted on velvet. But then, who would hold the rights? That’s the ultimate question of any property right now. We aren’t even about wonder anymore, we’re country lawyers, disputing whose pig went into whose yards.
If you have to watch it, steal it. I hope Bill Finger is sleeping easier in his grave than anybody who gives a damn about creativity up here does.
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